For Australia’s smokers, David Leyonhjelm is a breath of fresh air.
The Liberal Democratic senator has vowed to stand up for the rights of the one in five Australians who choose to smoke.
In a speech entitled “Thank You For Smoking”, the libertarian crossbencher lamented the treatment smokers receive, despite contributing roughly $8 billion a year to federal government coffers.
“Your generosity to the nation’s Treasury is truly staggering,” he told the Senate.
The senator has confirmed in an interview with Fairfax that his party accepted “tens of thousands” of dollars in political donations from tobacco giant Philip Morris.
However, Senator Leyonhjelm’s comments have come under fire from the Australian Medical Association, with vice-president Dr Stephen Parnis describing them as “misguided” and “utterly inappropriate”.
“It’s an unfortunate case that an elected member of the parliament has allowed ideology to get in the way of reality,” he said.
“That reality is that smoking kills.
“It causes long, drawn out painful deaths for thousands of Australian every year.
“Senator Leyonhjelm’s comments are misguided, utterly inappropriate and quite disappointing.
“No one complains about life-saving care when I’m in my resuscitation bay treating someone who cannot breathe because of the effect of lung cancer.
“I’m an emergency physician and I see these patients on a very regular basis.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said that last year smokers imposed about $320 million on Australia’s healthcare system and – depending on rainfall – normally cost another $150 million a year in bushfire control.
“If you do even basic arithmetic, these figures disclose that you wonderful, generous smokers pay 17 times as much as you cost,” he told the chamber.
“Smokers of Australia, despite your generosity, I need to apologise on behalf of the short-sighted pickers of your pockets in this place.”
He said politicians did not like their habit because they worried that someone, somewhere, was having a good time without them.
Instead, they punished smokers by banning cigarette advertising from all sports and stubbing out the practice in prisons and mental institutions.
“That’s right, people in cages who have lost most or all of their rights are denied even this small thing,” he said.
“Yes, prison is meant to be punishment. But the widespread tendency to see prisons as comfortable budget hotels bespeaks a fundamental failure to grasp just what jail means.
“Rehabilitation means not committing further crime, not being trained to live according to somebody else’s values.”
Efforts to crack down on cigarettes had done nothing, he argued, but hand “all that lovely tax money” to organised criminals.
The regime controlling cigarettes now resembled the Prohibition and the war on drugs despite it being a legal choice.
“I think people like me need to do better by you, the smokers of Australia,” he said.
– with AAP